Our recent Airstream acquisition has allowed me to patronize stores that I hadn’t considered before. “Black water” tank sanitizer tablets, for example, were not part of Ahlmann family vocabulary before last week, nor had I ever installed a brake controller or shopped for a locking hitch ball, a clever device intended to keep unapproved folks from hitching up your rig without your permission. (This is particularly relevant if you’re sleeping in it.)
It was the locking hitch ball adventure that made me wonder if local shops in small-town America stand a chance. I first purchased said device at Wal-Mart, because I was in a hurry and already picking up diapers, but the hitch lock didn’t fit. Sensing a need for expert advice, and frankly for emotional support, I pulled into a local RV Service and Parts purveyor. “Yeah, we don’t sell a lot of those,” said the man behind the counter, clearly more interested in replacing a black water tank than helping me solve the problem. “Of course you don’t,” I thought to myself on the way to the door. “You don’t sell them when you don’t carry them!” But I saved this insight for a more receptive audience, and went to the second RV shop where…
…they didn’t carry them either. I was apparently the only one in town concerned that someone would hitch up and steal my house, except for the folks at Wal-Mart who carried the item for “houses” of a different size. But at the second shop they offered to order one. Fine, I thought. Never mind that I can order one from Amazon myself. Here I can at least get help to find the right size, and still have a chance at that emotional support I came for in the first place.
To the owner of this store, it wasn’t clear from the catalog which size would be most appropriate either. And the frustration this caused him eliminated all chances of emotional support. So I politely excused myself after 20 minutes of strolling dusty aisles of tank valves and pre-LED RV lighting fixtures.
Amazon.com, you win.
Or do they?
In a nearby town, the 3rd owner of the local bike shop greets his customers at the door. He creates community by offering guests a soda while he works on their bike. He leads rides from the shop, and coaches the high school bike team. He offers professional-style fitting sessions for a fee, and builds customer relationships like a refined politician.
Are local shops in small-town America toast? Not until Amazon.com learns how to build community, fix bicycles and coach the local bike team. In the mean time, opportunities are alive and well for small shops that do business right.